Re'quan Boyette - SR
Jay Hollingsworth - SO
Patrick Kurunwune - Fr*
Desmond Scott - Fr Cameron Jones - So* Kyle Griswould
While head coach David Cutcliffe's offense is known for producing a number of top flight college quarterbacks, a key ingredient is a strong running game. In 2008 the Blue Devil ground attack suffered a major setback when senior Re'quan Boyette was sidelined with a season ending knee injury. Losing a player who has averaged nearly four yards per carry over the course of his career was certainly a blow, but it was the general lack of depth and experience in the backfield that put some added pressure on the passing game.
One positive development, however, was the emergence of then freshman Jay Hollingsworth who became the first freshman to lead the Blue Devils since B.J. Hill did so in 1998. Perhaps Hollingsworth's signature performance was the game against Virginia where he scored his first career touchdown on a 10 yard reception to snap a 3-3 tie against the Cavaliers and propel Duke to a resounding 31-3 victory. In that game the freshman carried the ball 15 times for 59 yards. For the season Hollingsworth finished with 399 yards on 107 carries.
With the NCAA granting Boyette an additional year of eligibility, the Duke back field returns a pair of running backs with starting experience. More specifically, the Blue Devils will be able to rotate a pair of backs who can handle the role of featured back in Cutcliffe's offense. That means a whole host of responsibilities aside from breaking tackles and making plays. Most importantly, it means picking up and contributing in the intricate blocking schemes employed by the offensive attack. It's an adjustment that Hollingsworth had to make on the fly in 2008.
"You really have to put in work to get stronger and you have to know the playbook down to the fine print," the rising sophomore told TDD. "You need to know where the holes are going to be, but you also need to be just as good in picking up pass protection. That's a really big thing at this level. You also put in a lot more time scouting the opposition and watching their film and your film - trying to find little things you can do better or use."
Of course the major question facing the backs heading into the 2009 season is the development of the offensive line where Duke could have as many as three new starters lining up. With an inexperienced group responsible for opening holes, Boyette sees the potential challenges, but also believes the team is in better shape than most experts predict.
"We need to get better at blocking as a team, and that includes the running backs," Boyette told TDD. "We need to be better as backs in the pass blocking schemes, and we need to make the offensive line look good by finding the holes and hitting them hard. They are making a lot of progress and if the skill players do their job and learn the offense to take advantage of how we block, we'll be successful."
In addition to Boyette and Hollingsworth, the Blue Devils were supposed to have another experienced young player in the rotation. However, New York native Tony Jackson was dismissed from the program over the summer, meaning redshirt freshman Patrick Kurunwune will have a chance to crack the rotation as a third string option. In the annual Spring game the 5-9, 210 pounder certainly made a case, rushing 13 times for 66 yards while catching four passes for 67 yards.
Perhaps the biggest buzz surrounding the Duke backfield is the the presence of true freshman and local Durham product, Desmond Scott. Rated as one of the best prospects in North Carolina in last season's senior class by Scout.com, Scott picked Duke over offers from a number of high major BCS programs. Blessed with explosive speed and breakaway ability, Scott could force his way into the rotation early on - not only for his ability to run the ball, but also his receiving ability out of the backfield. If the coaching staff believes he's going to help from the start, look for him to avoid a redshirt season. With just one run over 24 yards in 2008 (a 54 yard scamper by Clifford Harris) and a yards per carry average of 3.0, Scott's homerun ability may be too inviting.
Despite the potential of Scott, the bottom line is that Duke's running game will sink or swim with the performances of Boyette and Hollingsworth. Both have a valid claim to the starting position, and the competition will likely be fierce. The eventually winner of the spot can ill-afford to relax, which is something Duke has been missing in the backfield for many years.
"We're all competitors and we're all here for one another," said Hollingsworth. "We're always pushing each other, but also holding each other up. We're here for one another. The twos are always working harder to push the ones. The ones are working harder to set the bar higher, which makes the twos have to work even harder to push the ones. It's a chain, and it works well for us."
For a team with aspirations of making the post season for the first time in 15 years, such a chain will need to lead to improved production in 2009.